Showing posts with label ENO. Show all posts
Showing posts with label ENO. Show all posts

Sunday, November 22, 2015

The virgin Mikado

Richard Suart as the Lord High Executioner, doing his Little List. Photo: Sarah Lee

Confession time, folks. I have never seen The Mikado before. OK, maybe the first half on TV when I was about ten, but no more. Indeed, I have never even been to a professional performance of a Gilbert & Sullivan. A depressing am-dram Iolanthe about 30 years ago served as ferocious deterrent and our school performance of The Pirates of Penzance hadn't helped set up a positive impression, especially not when the big co-ed up the road was doing the St Matthew Passion and we, in the  Ladies' Seminary complete with lacrosse sticks, were stuck lumping through a G&S in which there are in fact only two female roles.

But G&S is - well, if you're fond of clever words (tick) and great tunes (tick) and desperately silly stories that nevertheless have a nugget or two of gold at their core (tick), and you love things that look pretty on stage (Jonathan Miller's production for ENO is simply gorgeous, darlings), and some really good singing too (tick), then what's not to like? The Miller production has been boomeranging back and back and back to the Coliseum since 1986, clocking up nearly 200 performances. Last night the man himself was there and went on stage to take a bow; the devoted audience gave him a standing ovation.

The words are indeed clever. Favourite lines include the idea that if you're going to masquerade as a Second Trombone, "you have to take the consequences". The Lord High Executioner's Little List of contemporary cruelties knocks the spots off Have I Got News For You and included on this occasion a fine predictive-rhyme swipe at our prime minister (hint: the word we heard was "dig" and we can imagine what would have followed...), alongside various demolitions of Nicola Sturgeon, Jeremy Corbyn and anything that remains of the Lib Dems.

The tunes are fabadabadoo. After all, I even conscripted one of them for kitten purposes a year ago.

The Jonathan Miller production has precious little to do with Japan, but that is true of the piece itself; so the black-and-white art deco approach complete with tap-dancing waiters and Yum-Yum looking strikingly like Ginger Rogers is all fine with all of us. The press info tells us it is supposed to be an English seaside hotel of the 1930s, but to me that idea says "miserable depression-era burned toast" - this stage set more resembles the Savoy, as well it might.

The nuggets of gold at the heart of the story? First of all, who could resist the ultra-romantic idea - delivered, of course, with irony aplenty - that it is better to enjoy one scant month of marriage to your true love and then die than never to wed her/him at all? Then there's the Lord High Executioner who finally reveals that he's so soft-hearted he couldn't even kill a bluebottle. And the one person who does have a chance to "soliloquise" with an aria all alone on stage is Katisha, the much-maligned Older Woman, who is the only character with a modicum of rounding out and a few specks of actual wisdom, which in this particular La-La Land is in short supply.

Singing is brilliant: Mary Bevan as Yum-Yum and Anthony Gregory as Nanki-Poo were ideal casting, Graeme Danby as Pooh-Bah was wonderfully convincing and Robert Lloyd managed the extra weight as the eponymous Mikado magnificently. Richard Suart's Lord High Executioner and Yvonne Howard's Katisha both seemed to be having the time of their lives.

So what's not to like? Why did I come out feeling "OK, been there, done that, would buy the t-shirt if there were one, but I don't have to see it again"? The evening felt very, very long and it didn't fly and sparkle and do that champagne-bubble thing that you want from operetta. And it wasn't just because in this day and age all the beheading jokes felt a bit close to the bone [sorry]. It felt like a half-open prosecco that's been in the fridge too long without a stopper. Tempi were often a little sluggish, except when they inadvertently galloped; several singers seemed to be trying to push things along, except on the occasions - including 'Three Little Maids' - when they had to step on it a bit to keep up. If only operas had previews to play themselves in, like theatre...

I have that feeling, which I had also over Jonas Kaufmann's Berlin album, that lightness of touch is fast becoming a lost art. Light music needs to be...lightly handled. Any screenwriter will tell you that comedy is the hardest thing of all to pull off - as will most actors - as it is all about timing. It is bloody difficult to do it well. And I am starting to wish that ENO would not throw its fine young conductors in at the deep end, getting them to do things like The Magic Flute, Die Fledermaus and, indeed, this for their debuts. Fergus Macleod, the incumbent Mackerras Fellow young conductor, whose house debut this was, is a highly gifted young maestro and I look forward to hearing him many more times in the future, in different, less niche repertoire.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Verdi's Guernica: The Force of Destiny at ENO

Calixto Bieito's hotly awaited (by some of us) new staging of Verdi's The Force of Destiny opened last night at ENO. I've reviewed it for the recently expanded reviews section of The Critics' Circle website and you can read it here.

Picasso's Guernica
Mine is one of the more enthusiastic write-ups doing the rounds this morning (except for The Standard, which gives it 5 stars. Mine is starless - hooray! - but would have given 4 had that been necessary. The Guardian also gives it 4).

So, confession time. I've never got along with Forza. I've seen it a few times and always found it overblown, implausible, ghastly and ridiculous by turns. Last night, though, I was thoroughly absorbed and deeply moved. Perhaps because I am a sceptic about the piece and therefore don't have my own fixed ideas of what I want from it (other than Jonas Kaufmann as the tenor, please) (I went to see him do it in Munich once, but he was off sick), I found Bieito's updating to the Spanish Civil War worked pretty well, on the whole.

Saturday, November 07, 2015

May the Forza be with Calixto Bieito

ENO's new production of La forza del destino - OK, The Force of Destiny - opens on Monday. I had an interview with its director, the ever-controversial Calixto Bieito, the other day which I think (hope) should be out in the Independent today. 

To get us in the mood for what promises to be an immense interpretation of this epic-scale Verdi masterpiece, here's an extract of a very different one - the production by Martin Kušej from the Bavarian State Opera, starring Anja Harteros as Leonora. This is "Pace, pace, mio dio" from the start of the final scene. Not because Bieito's will be anything like this. Simply because I was fortunate enough to see Harteros perform this in Munich and thought she was one of the greatest sopranos I've ever heard in my life, most of all in this aria. (The cast at ENO includes Tamara Wilson as Leonora, Gwyn Hughes Jones as Alvaro, Anthony Michaels-Moore as Carlo and Rinat Shaham as Preziosilla, and Mark Wigglesworth conducts.)

Calixto Bieito is directing The Force of Destiny. Those words might strike terror into the hearts of any opera-lovers who like their Verdi presented as it might have been in the 1950s, with quaint costumes and park-and-bark stances. Bieito, who has been likened to radical film directors such as Quentin Tarantino or Pedro Almodovár, could not be further from that approach if he tried. 

Opera forums have been buzzing with the pros and cons of his take on Puccini’s Turandot, which recently opened at Northern Ireland Opera in Belfast, set not in ancient fairy-tale China, but in a doll factory in the communist era. Among his other productions have been a cannibalistic Parsifal and a Matrix-like Fidelio – and while much has been controversial, his contemporary production of Carmen has been enjoying enormous success in opera houses all over the world for some 15 years. But for Bieito, The Force of Destiny may prove to be a special test. 

“For me this is a very personal show,” says the soft-spoken and self-confessedly melancholic Spanish director, who is 52. He has not tackled it before: “I was offered it, but I said no. I felt that for this I had to be much more mature than I was 15 or 20 years ago. I think this is a good moment to do it – but the music has been with me for a long, long time.” 

La forza del destino, to give its original Italian title, is a marathon three-and-half hour epic. Two star-crossed lovers, Leonora and Don Alvaro, attempt to elope, but Alvaro accidentally shoots Leonora’s father when he intercepts them. Her brother Carlo seeks revenge and the lovers try to escape: Leonora becomes a hermit, courtesy of fanatical local priests, while Alvaro joins the army under an assumed name and encounters Carlo, also in disguise, at war. A series of impossible-sounding coincidences leads, inevitably, to tragedy.

The plot is sometimes dismissed as confused – indeed, the opera used to be considered “cursed” – yet it is based on a Spanish classic, Don Álvaro; o La Fuerza del sino (1835), by Duque de Rivas, the play credited with initiating romanticism in Spain. “The text is extremely familiar to me because it belongs to Spanish culture and it’s obligatory in school. I read it for the first time when I was maybe 12 years old,” Bieito says. 

It is not so much a crazy opera, he adds, as an opera about insanity: “It’s related to the themes of the romantic period and the time of Verdi. It’s related to religion, fanaticism, nationalism, anger and revenge. In this opera, the family is the mirror of the war and the war is the mirror of the family. There’s a sentence I like very much, written by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: ‘Civil war is not war but a disease. The enemy is internal, people fighting themselves.’ And I think that this piece is about three people who are fighting themselves all the time.” 

“The piece in that sense is a kind of oratorio in chiaroscuro for the family,” he says. “Finally forgiveness and the goodness of the people is very important. In this opera the problem is the hate, the anger, the revenge, the blood of the family that provokes an explosion.” The eponymous force of destiny, he suggests, is in the genes. 

He has set his production in the 1930s during the Spanish Civil War, an era that has strong personal significance for him. He grew up in Miranda de Ebro, north-eastern Spain, not far from Guernica. “It came as a shock when I saw for the first time Picasso’s Guernica,” he says, “because I went to Guernica many times in my childhood. Guernica was the first time the Germans were bombing a city not with military objectives, but just bombing the people.” That was 1937; the Luftwaffe attacked Guernica to support General Franco against the Basque government. 

“It was only I went to university after many years that I discovered that the biggest concentration camp in the south of Europe was in my city,” he recounts. “Nobody talked about this. In the 1940s the boss of the concentration camp was a German general, but in the civil war for sure it was a Spanish one.” The camp was only closed in 1947.

His grandmother had lived through the civil war: “A lot of images in this show come from the stories my grandmother told me about that time, in a very simple, very honest way,” he says. In this imagery, walls are crucial: “They reflect the houses of the imaginary Guernica in my mind: the walls that keep the memories of the bombs, of the people who have died, the people who are weeping, and the refugees.” 

This production was planned some two years ago, before the current civil war in Syria provoked some European countries into erecting walls to keep out today’s refugees. “There are refugees in the show for sure,” says Bieito, “those who went to the Spanish border to escape to France, but in the end went to the Germans’ concentration camps. It was a big tragedy.”

Opening at ENO on 9 November, ENO’s staging is a co-production with the Metropolitan Opera in New York, where it will form Bieito’s house debut, in 2017-18; and with the Canadian Opera Company, Toronto, another first for him. Is this take-up in new territories perhaps a sign that the world is readier to accept the extreme darkness and intensity of the Bieito vision, that people are willing to look beyond old preconceptions that he wants to shock or horrify us? 

“I have never tried to horrify or shock,” Bieito says. “I’m trying to be honest with myself – and I feel privileged to express myself with the music of a fantastic composer and with the text of a wonderful writer. Everything is interpretation. All opera, all art is interpretation. I have been reading a book by Edvard Munch, the painter, in which he says that an artist must open his heart to express himself. I think – in a humble way, a simple way – that’s what I am doing.”

The Force of Destiny, English National Opera, London Coliseum, opens 9 November. Box office: 020 7845 9300

Monday, October 19, 2015

ENO's new La bohème: a bit too boho?

This is my review for The Independent of the new La bohème at English National Opera. Not the finest hour, perhaps, but a couple of very good performances therein... 


Corinne Winters as Mimi. Let's face it, you'd pay a fortune for a pad like this in Shoreditch...
Photo: Tristram Kenton

As opera lacks the luxury of previews, seemingly undercooked first nights aren’t as unusual as one might like. This staging of the perennial Puccini favourite by Benedict Andrews – a co-production with Dutch National Opera and new to ENO – is just the latest. Updated to somewhere vaguely near the present, it contains beautiful moments: plate-glass windows admit a golden sunset while Mimi breathes her last (set design by Johannes Schütz). Problem: you'd pay an arm and a leg for a pad like that in cool places like Shoreditch today, probably even without electricity...

But too often this production feels like a postmodern magpie collection of bohemian tropes: sparkly dresses, fake furs, Rodolfo’s typewriter, Marcello’s ballet skirt (sic), apparently emanating from a timeless Bohemia of the soul. More seriously, if Mimi and Rodolfo spend their Act I arias injecting heroin, yet this proves a dramatic dead-end, believability fades.

With the orchestra, conducted by Xian Zhang, in need of better ensemble and more pizzazz, the evening required redemption. It arrived in several very fine performances. Corinne Winters as Mimi offered bright, pure, unshakeable singing and a touchingly genuine character; Duncan Rock as Marcello bowled out charisma and vocal strength; and Simon Butteriss’s vignettes as both an estuary-style landlord Benoit and Musetta’s sugar-daddy Alcindoro were fabulous. 

Zach Borichevsky’s Rodolfo sounded warm but vocally patchy and Rhian Lois’s Musetta seemed comfortable only in the vamping-free final act. 

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Diva in waiting: meet ENO's new Mimi

Here's my interview with the wonderful Corinne Winters, the young American soprano who's about to star in the new production of La Bohème that opens on Friday at ENO. From yesterday's Independent (but I can't locate it yet on the new-look website). This fresh-sounding staging, a co-production with Dutch National Opera, is directed by Benedict Andrews and also stars Zach Borichevsky as Rodolfo, Duncan Rock as Marcello and Rhian Lois as Musetta. Xian Zhang conducts.

Corinne Winters. Photo: Kristin Hoebermann


Corinne Winters, the young American soprano, meets me at the London Coliseum. It has effectively been her artistic home since her breakthrough appearance as Violetta in Verdi’s La traviata in 2013. Her megawatt personality and quick, strong thinking remain undimmed after a full-on morning rehearsal for English National Opera’s new production of La Bohème, in which she sings Mimi, perhaps Puccini’s best-loved heroine. “I have this indestructible thing where I can sing all day,” she remarks. “It’s just the way my throat is. Some of my friends joke that I have cords of steel.” 

She must have nerves of steel, too, as some of ENO’s most contrary critics grumble when non-UK singers star in the company’s productions. Winters shrugs that off. “That doesn’t faze me,” she says. “I know why I’m here and I have a lot of support.” That emanates from many sources, ranging from the artistic team of ENO to fans on Twitter.

The company helped to propel the Australian tenor Stuart Skelton to stardom; Winters could be next. At 32, she has everything: the voice, the charisma, the looks, the intensity, the acting. The rounded bloom of her high notes made her Teresa a highlight of Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini in Terry Gilliam’s brilliant 2014 production. Her Violetta – touching, vulnerable and vocally flexible, melting or brilliantly edgy as necessary – apparently won her several years’ worth of further engagements. 

Violetta (Opera Hong Kong)

Nevertheless, Winters didn’t know opera existed until she was 17. “In suburban America, it’s not part of life – we never even hear about it,” she says. She is from Frederick, Maryland. “My father was a lawyer, but he was an amateur rock musician and had a fantastic ear,” she remembers. “We used to sing Beatles songs together – he would take John Lennon’s line, I would take Paul McCartney’s, and we’d sing in harmony. That was my entrée into singing. 

“I started with a choir and loved it. I thought I would keep doing that on the side – I wanted to be a writer or a psychologist. But then it was time to apply for colleges and I didn’t want to stop singing, but I’d never taken a voice lesson in my life. So I took one when I was 17 and the teacher said, ‘You have a powerful operatic voice’. I thought, ‘What?’”

She trained first as a mezzo-soprano, only discovering later that her true voice was higher and stronger; and the penny dropped in earnest when she finally attended her first opera, which was La Bohème. “The first thing was the wall of sound that hit me and the vibrations I felt in my body,” she says. “I was completely blown away by the sheer power of the unamplified human voice.” In effect, she had found herself: “The mezzo roles I’d been doing didn’t suit my temperament,” she remarks. “Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro was fun, but Mimi is heart-on-sleeve, heartfelt, raw. That’s who I am.” 

Tatyana in Eugene Onegin

Her first decade in the profession was tough: “Ten rejections for every ‘yes’,” she says. “You have to be persistent to deal with that.” All that changed after La traviata. This season she faces a concentrated patch of debuts, including Desdemona in Verdi’s Otello, in Antwerp. Last year she released an album of Spanish songs, upon which Plácido Domingo commented that her voice has “such a charismatic, opulent sound”. Next season she sings at the Royal Opera House. Her “dream role” would be Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, she says, though she thinks she would not be ready to tackle it for another seven years.

In July Winters moved permanently to the UK. Personal life takes a back seat to her singing at the moment, she adds, but she is thriving as a Londoner. “Most of my work is here or in Europe, and I love the theatre, the ballet and going to museums,” she says. “London’s culture is so rich that I can do something different every night.” 

When it comes to convincing newcomers of the worth and relevance of opera, though, she senses there is more work to be done. “I feel many opera houses are getting their marketing to young people wrong,” she declares. “I think it’s the sheer power of great singing that makes people come back. We have to trust that – and to trust the fact that a 17 year old will know if they like something. The young people on Twitter say, ‘We just want to hear great singing – we don’t need gimmicks to come to the opera’. If gimmicks get people through the door, great. But we need to go back to the root of it.

“As with any learned art form,” she notes, “if you don’t know about it you tend to think you don’t like it. I once thought I didn’t like opera. Look at me now – I’m obsessed!”

La Bohème, English National Opera, from 16 October. Box office: 020 7845 9300

Friday, July 10, 2015

ENO loses its head

ENO's Benvenuto Cellini, directed by Terry Gilliam
ENO is to lose its head. The company announced this morning that John Berry is stepping down after 20 years with the company, ten of them as artistic director. It seems that his departure will take effect with the close of this season, since Berry says he intends to spend the summer "deciding on my next role".

ENO has been in financial trouble for a very long time. It's both a tragic and ridiculous situation, and one with roots that go back way further than Berry's directorship. And it's a crying shame. London is a huge European capital, with a population forecast to rise to 10 million sooner rather than later, and it deserves at least two opera houses of world quality - which is what ENO has been of late, troubles aside. The audience exists, but it must be maintained. The will has to exist too. The will has, indeed, existed until now. Will it continue?

Those who for some mysterious reason would like to see it turn into a middle-of-the-road theatre offering middle-of-the-road productions of ever-popular hits might be rubbing their hands with gleeful hope. Those of us who love cutting-edge productions, the taking of risks, the soaring of artistic standards and the pushing out of repertoire boundaries are not so happy. Yes, some productions have been more successful than others and there've been a few turkeys - but the same is true round the corner at Covent Garden, which is funded to another tune altogether.

Without Berry we might never have had such stupendous efforts as Martinu's Giulietta - a gorgeous opera and Richard Jones production to match - which didn't sell, but shouldn't have been missed for the world. We wouldn't have had Weinberg's The Passenger. We wouldn't have had that now-classic Peter Grimes. We wouldn't have had the glorious Jones production of Meistersingers coming to London from its Welsh origins, or the David McVicar all-UK-star Rosenkavalier - two of the best evenings I've ever had at any opera house anywhere in the world. And we wouldn't have had Terry Gilliam's Berliozes. I rest my case.

If change is needed at ENO - and, sadly, it seems that it is - that change has to be in its pricing policies, the way it sells itself, and maybe the pressing ahead of creative outreach and education work, a field in which it is sometimes perceived to be lagging behind. Artistically, dear ENO, keep your vision and ambition. Please keep believing that where there's a will, there's a way.

Anthony Whitworth-Jones, who is heading the board's artistic committee, is one of the most experienced people in the business, with both Glyndebourne and Garsington long under his belt; one senses a safe pair of hands in which confidence can be placed, and this can only be a good thing. Good luck to you all.

Friday, July 03, 2015

Edward Gardner bows out

Photos both by Richard Hubert Smith

Yesterday Edward Gardner took his final bow as music director of English National Opera after the last night of The Queen of Spades.

The new incumbent, Mark Wigglesworth, steps up in the new season. We love Mark too, but we are going to miss Ed like the blazes. I have no doubt that the brightest of brilliant futures awaits this thrilling, charismatic and galvanisingly energetic musician. The good news is he's coming back to do Tristan & Isolde next year.

ENO sent out a range of pictures from the event. Below, John Berry, flanked by the orchestra, bids farewell to Ed. I hope the figures high above them are not representatives of Arts Council England.

Sunday, June 07, 2015

Tchaikovsky, spades and stalkers...

I had a chat with director David Alden about The Queen of Spades at ENO for The Independent (opening night was yesterday). He revealed that Tchaikovsky was no stranger himself to the sort of stalking that Lisa experiences from Hermann...

Few operas can boast a libretto based on a literary masterpiece that is also a psychological thriller. Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades, after Alexander Pushkin’s short story, is the exception – and its gripping tale, focusing on a crazed anti-hero, presents a peach of a challenge for any opera company. English National Opera is about to stage its first production of the work in some 20 years with the American director David Alden at its helm. After his enduring success for ENO with Britten’s Peter Grimes, expectations run high.

The opera’s protagonist, Hermann, believes that if he can discover the secret of the “three cards” it will transform his life. He courts the unfortunate Lisa to gain access to her grandmother, an elderly Countess who guards the crucial gambling formula; tragedy ensues as his obsession spirals out of control.

“It’s not easy to stage,” Alden confirms. “It’s a very big piece, it’s quite a monstrous, gigantic panorama, and to keep refocusing it requires a difficult balance between its elements.”

Despite its scale and depth, The Queen of Spades is often overshadowed by Tchaikovsky’s operatic masterpiece, Eugene Onegin, also based on Pushkin, which preceded it by a decade. No less compelling, though, are the driven, haunted qualities of his music for Hermann and Lisa and the care and delight with which he created Mozartian pastiche to evoke the Countess’s memories of the court of Catherine the Great.

The score’s special intensity, Alden points out, may have been turbo-charged by a frightening situation that would have led Tchaikovsky to identify with the confused and increasingly desperate Lisa. Some years earlier, the composer had married, most ill-advisedly, a young woman named Antonina Milyukova who had pursued him by letter. He was gay; she was mentally unstable; disaster ensued. “He had got her out of his life, but she returned and started to make trouble for him,” Alden says. “She flipped over something petty and started threatening to expose him. He fled to Italy in order to write this piece.”

Hermann is in love, at a distance, with Lisa; he pursues her like a stalker, uses her blatantly to access the Countess, and finally drives her to suicide. His obsession transfers to the old Countess and her secret of the three cards. “It’s very Freudian,” Alden suggests. “There’s a triangle of him and the two women, and it turns out the real erotic zinger of the opera is between him and the Countess: his horror of her, his desire for her and the cards.” The setting of St Petersburg becomes virtually a character in its own right, “an aristocratic milieu with decadence and corruption only just under the surface”.

It sounds all too contemporary – but the psychological element remains timeless and universal. “It is very non-literal,” Alden says, of his new production. “It’s a weird, beautiful, dreamy thing.”

The Queen of Spades, English National Opera, from 6 June. Box office: 020 7845 9300

Thursday, April 23, 2015

More on ENO & British opera

Further to my post this morning, in which I grumbled about the lack of British operas beyond G&S in the new ENO season, I've got some more depressing information. I'm reliably informed that the company was planning to put on a major work by an important living British composer, but that this had to be abandoned at an advanced stage - because of the funding cuts. As you'll remember, the ACE slashed ENO's grant by a shocking 29 per cent and removed it from the national portfolio. And so they can't do a big piece by a big Brit. This seems to me very much like the ACE shooting itself in both feet at the same time.

I'd also like to make it clear that ENO has a terrific track record of supporting British music - just a few of its recent productions have included Vaughan Williams's Pilgrim's Progress, plenty of great Britten but especially that amazing Peter Grimes, the triumph of Julian Anderson's Thebans, and the premiere this month of Tansy Davies's Between Worlds. The list could continue. It's precisely because of that track record that I find it so disappointing that there isn't anything to match it in 2015-16. New opera commissioned from Ryan Wigglesworth is due in 2017.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Between Worlds: the premiere

I reviewed ENO's world premiere last night of Between Worlds, Tansy Davies's new opera with librettist Nick Drake on the awe-inspiring topic of 9/11. The piece? Quite a lot of problems where different aspects were at odds with each other, but some of us wept anyway. The performance? Superb. My review is in The Arts Desk, here (£).

Thursday, April 02, 2015

9/11 comes to ENO

I had a wonderful talk with the composer Tansy Davies, whose first opera Between Worlds brings a profound take on the Twin Towers attack to the stage of the Barbican, in a co-commission between this centre and ENO. Its world premiere is on 11 April. My piece is in the Independent, here.

Friday, February 13, 2015

ENO: souls, soles and shoestrings

Yesterday's bombshell about ENO arrived wrapped in rose-scented words just in time for Valentine's Day. Some people even fell for the good news story: £30m over two years from ACE, woo-hoo!

Oh dear. It turns out that this money is "special measures" (it's the original core funding that was in place anyway. plus £7m in transition funds, as we understand it). If the company doesn't shape up in a way that the Arts Council England approves, it could then lose all its government funding. And that, you could say, would probably mean tickets. The wrong sort of tickets.

The prospect of ENO vanishing from the planet is devastating for music lovers in London. Thinking of the finest operatic performances I've seen in the last few years, I'd have to point to many things that simply would not have taken place at Covent Garden. John Adams, Vaughan Williams, Terry Gilliam's Berliozes, Rosenkavalier staged by McVicar with Amanda Roocroft, Sarah Connolly, Sophie Bevan and Sir John Tomlinson, and that extraordinary, desperately underrated and undersold Martinu opera Julietta. Calixto Bieito. Peter Sellars. The list could go on. Not so much English National Opera, perhaps, as British International Opera. There have also been a few very big, very expensive mistakes - yet without a willingness to take risks, opera as an art form really would die. And London without all that adventure would be like...well, New York, without New York City Opera.

Which, of course, has gone. Operatic Manhattan now has only the Met. Comparisons are being drawn, even ones predicated as if this is not a bad thing. But it is a very bad thing. NYCO's closure appears to have been the result, as far as one can tell from here, of a gigantic f***-up and could conceivably have been avoided had things been handled differently earlier in the process.

Earlier in the process, as it happens, the ACE's chairman, Peter Bazalgette, was formerly the chairman of ENO. Since his move to the ACE, ENO has been targeted for bigger funding cuts than any other organisation still in the organisation's national 'portfolio'. According to the Guardian Bazalgette has reportedly not been participating in the ACE's discussions this week.

One hopes profoundly that in the two years' grace it's been so, er, kindly granted, the company can pull together and find means to survive. That what might look like cynical attempts to kill it off are not in fact that. That whatever's going on at the micro-level behind the scenes can be put to one side in favour of the macro-level bigger picture. That artistic vision can be respected on the one hand and financial prudence accepted on the other.

Since the resignation of the executive director, Henriette Götz, two weeks ago Anthony Whitworth-Jones, formerly of Glyndebourne and then Garsington, has been brought in to help. It is interesting to reflect that Glyndebourne and Garsington are both privately funded. JDCMB is a passionate believer in the principle of public funding for the arts, but if ENO has to be privatised, it would still be better than losing it altogether. Reduce it to middle-of-the-road potboiler productions - as some would like to - and there's really not much point having it at all; the good news is that neither Glyndebourne nor Garsington has ever resorted to that.

This looks to me like something one step from Shock Doctrine-style brinksmanship - it is certainly quacking like that particular duck - but let's keep fundamental ideas strong. This is a company with a big vision, a big theatre, an expensive art form and not a big budget under those circumstances. The ACE has got them over a barrel and something may have to give. Sacrifice real estate if necessary; find other pricing models and fundraising opportunities, by all means; but whatever happens, whoever leaves, don't jettison the principle of artistic vision that has kept ENO a truly international force. Let's keep ENO BIO.

Monday, October 20, 2014

A debate about Klinghoffer - the British way

This is the civilised debate that ENO held about The Death of Klinghoffer and the nature of art before Tom Morris's staging opened here two years ago. The run itself was generally well received and passed without incident.

Parterre has provided an audio streaming of the opera from its world premiere in 1991 and a link to the libretto, so it is perfectly possible to make yourself well informed about the reality of its content if you so wish.

Update, 9.40pm: here is my article on Klinghoffer from The Independent in 2012

Thursday, October 02, 2014

The Girl of the Golden West End

I wrote this for the Indy's 'Observations' section last weekend, but can't find it online, so here it is in full glory...Puccini's The Girl of the Golden West opens at ENO tonight, with Susan Bullock as Minnie. Enjoy.

Sometimes you can wait two decades for a new production of a particular opera, only to find three turning up within a year. Until recently Puccini’s La fanciulla del West (The Girl of the Golden West) was a relative rarity on these shores. But with stagings this year at Opera North, Opera Holland Park and now English National Opera, where a new one directed by Richard Jones opens on 2 October, it looks as if this entrancing work’s day has arrived.

It is not before time. The composer regarded it as one of his greatest; leading sopranos put its heroine, Minnie, at the top of their role wish-lists. Yet this piece can raise awkward expectations in a movie-drenched public: it’s an operatic western. Puccini gives his all in the service of a story about miners, bandits and a feisty female saloon owner. Maybe opera-goers are more accustomed to tales of consumptive courtesans perishing by inches in 19th-century Paris.

To Puccini himself, though, the Californian gold rush was wildly romantic; as exotic as those topics he tackled elsewhere, such as the Geisha girls of Japan (Madama Butterfly) or rebellion, torture and passion in 18th-century Rome (Tosca). Basing the opera on David Belasco’s play of the same title – and, so the story goes, inspired by an illicit female muse a little way from his home at Torre del Lago, Tuscany – he set to work at fever pitch. The world premiere took place at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, in 1910.

In Minnie he created a gigantic leading role, requiring great stamina and strength. It is a dream part for sopranos with the right voice and personality to carry it off; today such stars as Eva-Maria Westbroek and Susan Bullock, who takes the lead at ENO, cite it as a top favourite.

A passionate, complex character, with music to match, the saloon keeper Minnie risks all for love. She falls for the mysterious Dick Johnson, only to discover that he is a bandit in disguise. Despite the deception, she is willing to save him – with her own life, if need be – and the opera offers that rare treat: a happy ending.

The Wild West nevertheless may not be its only problem in reaching the modern public’s hearts. It lacks set-pieces that can be plucked out and popularised. There is no show-stopping aria like ‘Nessun dorma’ from Turandot or ‘Vissi d’arte’ from Tosca that can be played time after time on the radio. Instead, the entire score is magnificent, in a whole different way: it is riveting music-drama, a play set to sophisticated, wonderfully orchestrated, through-composed sonic treats. Take on Fanciulla and you take all or nothing.

Perhaps this gold rush of productions shows that finally we are ready for that. Meanwhile, if operatic westerns are having a moment in the sun, it is maybe time for a British company to present the American composer Charles Wuorinen’s recently premiered opera of Brokeback Mountain.

The Girl of the Golden West, English National Opera, from 2 October. Box office: 020 7845 9300

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

ENO turns to musicals

ENO announces its 2014-15 season this morning. Gently buried within is the information that they are going to do... musicals. They have a new partnership with Michael Grade and Michael Linnit to this end.

The latter two say:
"We are delighted with this unique and exciting partnership, which creates an opportunity to embrace the new climate where audiences seem to enjoy the blurring of boundaries between opera, theatre and musicals and clearly they love a first class show. Bringing the considerable creative flair of ENO to bear on modern musicals will bring new audiences to the Coliseum, new revenues to ENO, and a new look at some of the greatest pieces of musical theatre ever written."

OK, so maybe they need the money; who wouldn't these days? But er, modern musicals? Isn't the West End a bit full of commercial theatres doing this already? Major, major hmmm. That is not, repeat NOT, why we need a subsidised English-language opera house. Jerome Kern's Showboat would be great, of course, as would West Side Story, but these are hardly modern...

First reaction to the rest of the season, though, is that it is absolutely yummy scrummy. A few highlights, in no particular order:

Stuart Skelton sings Otello.
First full staging of John Adams's The Gospel According to the Other Mary, directed by Peter Sellers.
Meistersinger with Ed Gardner conducting, directed by Richard Jones. Yes yes yes!
Mike Leigh to make operatic directorial debut in The Pirates of Penzance. (?!)
Richard Jones also directs The Girl of the Golden West, with Susan Bullock as Minnie.
Felicity Palmer as the Countess in The Queen of Spades.
New opera about 9/11 by Tansy Davies.
Joanna Lee writes ENO's first opera for children.
New partnership with Bristol Old Vic => Monteverdi Orfeo directed by Tom Morris.
ENO conducting debuts for Joana Carneiro and Keri-Lynn Wilson.
London Coliseum to open to the public all day, with new foyer cafe & general retweaking of eateries/foyers.
New research project with UCL into the future of the performing arts. (But do see other announcement, top.)

UPDATE: Here is the season trailer, just released...

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Ed is leaving ENO...

Sobs in sunny Sheen today upon the news that Edward Gardner is leaving English National Opera. The highlights of his stint as music director have been many and various - I'd pick out his Der Rosenkavalier, The Flying Dutchman, Wozzeck and The Damnation of Faust, to name but a few, as some of the most exciting operatic treats of the past several years. The vitality, intelligence and sheer electric delight of his music-making have never failed to light up the Coliseum. The job now passes not to another young whizz-kid (Ed was 31 when appointed), but to Mark Wigglesworth: a tried, tested, known, solid, liked and respected British musician, who will probably do a jolly good job. Ed, though, is off to Bergen, which unfortunately is in Norway and not accessible via the District Line. Excuse me while I go and have a howl.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

ENO goes to the cinema, finally

If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. After a few years of resistance to the craze for live opera relays to the cinema, ENO has at last stepped aboard the bandwagon. From February you'll be able to see some of their productions at your local - starting with Peter Grimes starring Stuart Skelton, and subsequently the director Terry Gilliam's return visit to Berlioz, his new staging of Benvenuto Cellini. Expect five or six per season from next September. It seems they're finally convinced that it will widen their audience rather than dilute it. Hooray.

Below is the press release.

(If you were expecting a review of the Royal Opera's Parsifal from me this morning, I have to ask you to be a little patient - I am still digesting something resembling a curate's egg cooked by Heston Blumenthal...)

English National Opera (ENO) and AltiveMedia have today (Thursday 12 December) launched ENO Screen – a partnership to broadcast ENO’s unique theatrical productions to 300 cinemas across the UK and Ireland and selected cinemas worldwide, extending the opportunity to see the most innovative contemporary opera in the world to audiences around the world.
ENO Screen will begin with live screenings of David Alden’s award-winning production of Britten’s Peter Grimes, starring Stuart Skelton as the ostracised fisherman, on 23 February 2014 and the new production of Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini, based on the colourful life of the 16th century Italian goldsmith and sculptor, directed by Monty Python legend Terry Gilliam in June. From autumn 2014, live screenings will extend to five or six productions a season.
Speaking of the new venture, ENO Artistic Director John Berry said: “ENO's entry into cinemas will be as distinctive as our live work in the theatre, creating a truly cinematic experience. Our productions are already seen worldwide in more than 30 cities and I believe that the cinema broadcasts will enable many more people to enjoy the excitement and passion of ENO’s work and will encourage those visiting London to come to the theatre and see an ENO opera first hand.
“We have thought hard about whether to expand our activities into cinema and I believe in AltiveMedia we have now found the right partner to capture and promote ENO’s unique artistic personality in an exciting and dynamic way.
Peter Grimes is a definitive work in ENO's history and has proven to be one of our trail-blazing productions of recent years. It’s a wonderful way to launch this new initiative so close to Benjamin Britten's centenary year.”
Craig Shurn, Managing Director of AltiveMedia, said: “We have a first class technical and creative team who will ensure this will be an amazing spectacle that shows off ENO at its very best.
“We felt that the opera offering in cinemas was incomplete without ENO’s unique take, so we’re delighted to be working with ENO to bring the most innovative, stunning productions of their type to the big screen. We’ll be reaching out to those who already love opera and to people who have never tried it before, helping to build on the growing demand for this kind of quality entertainment.”
ENO Screen broadcasts will be produced by Serpent Productions, led by MTV award-winning director and Grammy award nominee Andy Morahan and Producer Dione Orrom.

Friday, November 08, 2013

McBurney's Mozart is a Flute for our times

Before we get down to business with Simon McBurney's production of The Magic Flute, here's 2 1/2p about opera in translation. The raison d'etre of ENO is to perform opera in the vernacular. But London today is such a cosmopolitan city that the concept is starting to look outdated. Yesterday The Magic Flute was in English; but the main language in the foyer seemed to be Hungarian.

That was because the holder of ENO's Mackerras Conducting Fellowship was on the podium for a performance for the first time: Gergely Madaras, 28, from Budapest. He has been working at ENO alongside Ed Gardner, being mentored and nurtured. Perhaps The Magic Flute isn't an ideal debut opera - but his conducting was full of vim and whoosh, extremely alive, well-balanced and tender-hearted. It took a little while to "settle" - there were one or two little disagreements over tempo between pit and stage, and a few moments needed a tad more time to breathe. But that will go, in due course, and on the whole Madaras seems a careful accompanist and a fine, full-spirited musician. I look forward to hearing more of him.

So to Flute - a production on which many expectations hang, since it replaces Nicholas Hytner's classic of 25 years or more. It could scarcely be more different. And it could scarcely be more enchanting, more contemporary, more inspired. Flute has been my most-loved opera since childhood, yet I found things in it yesterday that I've never seen or heard before, in the best possible way.

It has been described as the most demanding production ENO has yet staged. Sometimes its effects are stunning: the writhing snake that attacks Tamino is filmed and projected around him; and during the trials the prince and princess swim through a mid-air, hand-drawn spiral, as if starring in Titanic (above). The Temple of Reason emerges from a shelf of giant books; their pages become Papageno's fluttering birds, wielded by 14 actors (below). The Queen of the Night - confined for much of the show to a wheelchair - sings amid a breathing, trembling aura of stars. Moreover, much action takes place on a platform that swings, dips and tips, leaving the singers to balance, pace, slide when necessary and, of course, sing some jolly demanding music throughout - which they managed without the merest flinch.

McBurney was new to opera when he directed the massively successful A Dog's Heart for ENO a few years ago; this is his first classic. A fascinating interview in The Guardian makes the following suggestion: "I take the audience from darkness to light, to make us evolve, to end mystification and embrace reason and rationality. That, as I understand it, is what the opera is about."

It is indeed, and McBurney's staging makes its message one for today, "relevant" in a way that is revelatory and profound rather than contrived. Indeed, we've rarely needed that message as much as we do now. It's as if Mozart himself is speaking to us as spiritual leader, as prophet.

The opera has been divested of its racism and as much of its sexism as possible, and - dare I say - is the better for it. The world that the characters move in is profoundly dangerous, riven by war, delusion, superstition; the plea is for wisdom, love, enlightenment. Everything feels here and now; the crisis of humanity of which Sarastro speaks is our own; everything seems real, the more apparently illogical the truer to life - and, moreover, true to the timeless heart of Mozart's vision.

[Dear Simon, please will you do Parsifal next, then the Ring cycle? Lots of love, Jess x.] 

In this process of "becoming"; everyone evolves, not only Tamino in his quest for initiation or Pamina in her growth from projected image - literally shining onto Tamino's heart while he sings his great aria - to mature and devoted woman. The magic instruments are played by members of the orchestra, the flautist walking on stage to stand alongside Tamino, the magic bells rendered on a keyboard from a corner of the pit where Papageno can interact suitably (the orchestra is raised so that it is just a notch below the stage).

But Papageno gradually learns to play them himself. Unpacking his parcel of food and wine, he creates a row of bottles which he empties - and in one case, er, fills - to reach the right pitch, and uses them to accompany the start of 'Ein mädchen oder weibchen'. "My old friend Chateauneuf du Pape..." he quips, then wonders if his "friend"'s family is present. Sure enough, inside the basket he finds more bottles. "Ahh, here's Auntie Angela and Uncle Roberto. Better keep those two apart!" - with which he places them at either end of the row. (Apologies to my neighbours in the theatre - I may have squawked...) Anyhow, by the time we get to 'Klinge, glöckchen, klinge', Papageno can tickle the ivories perfectly well and the keyboard player, striding on stage to be his sidekick, is put out to find her services aren't required.

Major plaudits to a terrific cast. Ben Johnson is a superb Tamino - his voice better suited to this role than it was to Alfredo in La Traviata - open-toned, focused and deeply musical. Devon Guthrie's feisty, heart-breaking Pamina matched him turn for turn. Roland Wood's Papageno - from Blackburn? - was a delight. McBurney has him carting a ladder around and from time to time he climbs it to escape something that alarms him, as if fleeing from a mouse. The introduction of a cuckoo noise into his first aria is naughty and rather delicious. James Creswell is an ideal Sarastro and Cornelia Götz a mostly strong Queen of the Night - and I love it that she is redeemed at the conclusion. Pamina doesn't often get her mother back.

Just one other perennial bugbear. The orchestra plays in that contemporary, standardised, "listen!-we-play-18th-century-music-without-vibrato" sound that always has been at odds with that of the human voice, and will always remain so.

In 100 years' time, assuming anyone still remembers who Mozart was, some scholar, assuming scholars still exist, may undertake a research project, assuming research still exists, about The Magic Flute. Of course they will be shocked to see the long hushed-up original text. But where the music is concerned, they might try a daring experiment: have the strings play with vibrato, just once, just to see what happens. And they will be astonished by how beautiful it sounds. And they will look at our generations' reasons for stopping the vibrato. And they will laugh.